Wild Seed

Octavia E. Butler
Wild Seed Cover

Octavia Butler - Wild Seed (1980)


"Anyanwu looked away, spoke woodenly. 'It is better to be a master than to be a slave.' Her husband at the time of the migration had said that. He had seen hiself becoming a great man - master of a large household with many wives, children and slaves. Anyanwu, on the other hand, had been a slave twice in her life and had escaped only by changing her identity completely and finding a husband in a different town. She knew some people were masters and some were slaves. That was the way it had always been. But her own experience taught her to hate slavery. She had even found it difficult to be a good wife in her most recent years because of the way a woman must bow her head and be subject to her husband. It was better to be as she was - a priestess who spoke with the voice of a god and was feared and obeyed. But what was that? She had become a kind of master herself. 'Sometimes, one must become a master to avoid being a slave,' she said softly."

'Wild Seed' can stake a good claim towards being Octavia Butler's finest work. The third book written in the sequence, it is responsible for giving the series much of its scope, complexity and emotional power. The book tells the story of Anyanwu, a female shapeshifter with extraordinary healing abilities, who is taken away from her home in West Africa by Doro, a malevolent psychic parasite who consumes people's souls and inhabits their bodies. Doro has been breeding people with latent psychic and telekinetic ability for centuries, in the hope of building a new society of more powerful people, partly so he can feed off and control them, and partly so that he can build a society that he can belong to instead of being a hated and feared outcast. Never having met anyone like Anyanwu before, he desperately wants to breed her in his programme. 'Wild Seed' follows Anyanwu and Doro's relationship from the 1600s through to the 1800s as on-again off-again lovers and frequent antagonists, as Doro tries to frighten, bully and coerce the strong-willed Anyanwu to bend her to his will, and Anyanwu tries to keep Doro in touch with what little humanity he has left or to escape his clutches for good.

The story allows Butler to explore different forms of slavery and subjugation. One of the ways that Doro controls the people he breeds from is by buying and selling slaves, which allows him to collect various people from different areas in Africa and transport them to the United States, which is what happens to Anyanwu. Butler uses well-researched historical detail to enrich the novel to great effect, from the conditions on the slave ships, the bartering for slaves and the system of slavers Doro has set up to help him collect the people he wants, to Anyanwu's reactions on arriving in an utterly different culture where she is viewed as property. But the power imbalance between master and slave is not the only one Anyanwu encounters; she is living in a time when women have very little rights, and are meant to be subservient to their husband, and she sees a clear parallel between the husband/wife relationship and the master/slave one. The book explores how sex can be used as a weapon to reinforce both. Once they arrive at Doro's plantation, he forces Anyanwu to marry his son Isaac and have children by them, both so that he can breed from her children and so that he can tie her down. 'Wild Seed' is frequently a frightening and horrifying novel, and much of it hits home because it is derived from the deeply unpleasant ways African Americans were genuinely treated by whites in the slave trade. Doro is a truly terrifying antagonist, and part of this is because he is an energy vampire who can devour your soul and steal your body, but part of this is because the way he manipulates and bullies people is based on unpleasant historical reality. 'Wild Seed' gives the reader a powerful and unforgettable sense of what it's like to live in fear, trapped in what is essentially an abusive relationship sanctioned by the law with no rights or legal protection. This reality helps to anchor the more abstract horror of psychic threat.

However the power imbalance works to dehumanise both ways. Doro is so much more powerful, so much more long lived than other people that he finds it difficult to relate to them any more. So naturally he has fewer and fewer qualms about treating people as objects, and putting what he wants above the needs and safety of others. One of the reasons he needs Anyanwu so much is that she, as the only being whose power and longevity can remotely compare to his, is someone he can still relate to and who can help him still relate to other people. Doro and Anyanwu, as Emma, originally appear in 'Mind Of My Mind', and exploring their origins in 'Wild Seed' was a canny choice by Butler. They tie the Patternist series to our lived-in history.

'Wild Seed' also explores compromise. Anyanwu has to decide how much she is willing to compromise her freedom and the freedom of her children, given that she is operating in a system that is wildly stacked against her favour. In the book's climax, she is planning to kill herself in order to escape Doro for good. In Butler's books, suicide is not an easy way out; all of her characters want to live, however poor the odds, and suicide is only considered when there is absolutely no other way out. This forces Doro to realise how much he needs Anyanwu, and ultimately they are able to come to an arrangement where he won't put her children in direct danger. The interesting thing about this is how morally complex it is. At the end of 'Wild Seed', this is played as a victory, and it's very much earned by the characters. Anyanwu has sacrificed what she can, but will continue living and will mitigate the damage that Doro is capable of doing. However, she has still capitulated to an incredibly unfair and unpleasant system which she knows is run on kidnap, rape and abuse. By the time of 'Mind Of My Mind', the emerging Patternists see her as fully complicit in all of Doro's crimes, and there is no place for Anyanwu in the new world that the Patternists create.